Quite a while ago, probably at least three years, a friend asked me if I would write something about loss. He’s probably forgotten he asked since it’s been so long or it’s been so long that his need no longer exists. I told him I would, but I needed to wait until my life was in a better place. At that time, I was dealing with the loss of a job I really enjoyed and was struggling to find work. I was scared about my future and spent too many sleepless nights avoiding pity parties. Writing about loss was the last thing I needed to do right then.
But that seed was planted in my brain and every once in a while it pops up asking to be nurtured and noticed. I was reminded of it over the weekend (see Carl’s Birthday) as I told a group of people that “I lost my mother” and two years later “I lost my father.” When I speak out loud about their deaths, that is the verbiage that naturally flows off my tongue. As I spoke the word lost to this group, I was reminded of my friend’s request to write about loss. This writing has been floating around in my brain for the better part of thirty-some hours. I think it’s time to honor my friend’s request.
To me, death is not a passing, it’s a loss. My parents not only died, I lost them. They were taken when I wasn’t ready, when they weren’t ready, when I needed them. And so it follows that I believe we experience many types of losses in the course of our lives. For example, about a month ago one of my nieces opened the door to let out her dog and her treasured pet bird flew out the door. When a pet runs (or flies) away, that loss can be even more traumatizing than if the pet had died of natural causes. Another example is the loss of a job, no matter if you enjoyed it or not. It causes a change to your lifestyle and your ability to make ends meet. With financial hardship may come the loss of your house or apartment, even a car. Lack of funds can mean the cancellation of a trip you’ve been looking forward to. It may mean giving up on dreams and goals.
In my first year of college, I was living in a dorm and my two brothers who still lived at home were ready to move on to apartments. I saw the dorm as temporary housing. My brothers didn’t want the responsibility of managing the house anymore. And so all my seven siblings talked about it without me and made the determination that the house would be sold. No one cared to think about where I was going to go over Christmas break when the college sent everyone home or when the college year was finished. I was seeing a therapist at the time and he tried to explain to me that when people experience a loss, they grieve. It was his way of explaining why I was feeling so depressed about losing the only home I had ever known. The therapist told me that loss brings feelings of grief, and our brain/body has a memory of feelings. When the grief feeling is triggered, then a flood of memories of other times we felt grief parade through our brains.
I feel fortunate that I was given that wisdom and perspective at such a young age. For at every major milestone in my life—high school graduation, college graduation, wedding, buying a house, birth of each child—hidden in the mix of happy and exuberant emotions was always the reminder of the loss of my parents. They weren’t there to share in my “dreams” that had come true. Oh, don’t for a minute think every milestone in my life has been maudlin and without joy. That is far from my reality! I merely want to point out that loss can easily be in the mix of many other emotions, even happy ones.
More recently, in May of 2010, I had a loss I had never experienced before. And it was so traumatic, it made me physically ill for three or four days. The hard drive on my computer crashed. Unfortunately for me, the 300-page novel I had been writing for many years was on that computer. And so was another novel, about 75 pages long, that I had just recently started. I had a print out of the longer novel from about six months prior. Not the final version, but enough of it that I was able to retype (and edit) the novel and give it new life. (I now have three electronic copies of it.) The shorter novel was gone. No way to bring it back. I also lost about two years’ of journaling and scores of other writings. I grieved for several weeks over these losses. I was so angry at my shortsightedness for not having backups. I ignored the well-intentioned comments friends and family made. “Just rewrite it. It was your idea. You wrote it once, you can write it again.” Sorry, folks. Those words were never coming back.
As a child, when I or one of my siblings would experience a bad day or make a big mistake or be faced with a serious challenge, my father liked to tell us the experience would build character. I’ve often joked that I have enough character and don’t need any more, thank you very much. But just as difficult challenges shape us and teach us, so does loss define us. I wouldn’t be the person I am today had my parents lived long lives. I doubt I would cherish the home I live in today as much as I do had I not been forced to give up my childhood home before I had another permanent place to live. Losing my “dream” job in the summer of 2008 and most of my savings two months later in the market crash brought about a fiscal conservatism in me that never before existed. (And out of necessity I had been very frugal for most of my life!) Being in job search mode for thirty-six months shaped my self-esteem and helped me to understand where I place value in a job. It also showed me that I put too much value in a job’s title or how high a job is on the corporate ladder.
Author Dean Koontz writes about loss in The Darkest Evening of the Year. “We must know the pain of loss; because if we never knew it, we would have no compassion for others, and we would become monsters of self-regard, creatures of unalloyed self-interest. The terrible pain of loss teaches humility to our prideful kind, has the power to soften uncaring hearts, to make a better person of a good one.”
My children have been blessed all of their lives. The two grandparents they knew while growing up are still alive. They have not lost a parent, a sibling, a cousin. Certainly they have had their share of challenges, and some of the friends they have made only passed through their lives a short time instead of staying a lifetime. I’m sure if I asked each of them, each would agree she has experienced some kind of loss in her life. I suppose the greatest loss each has overcome was when their dad and I divorced. It was a dream shattered for all of us.
It is inevitable that someday I will need to parent my daughters through a moment of monumental loss. I can only hope I will have some words of wisdom to guide them in that moment.